Jessica Hardy sees Olympic rings in her future.
After watching her swim circles around the competition this season, others can see why.
"She's at a whole other level from the rest of the kids," said Maggi Twinem, her coach at Long Beach Wilson. "We were very fortunate that she even swam with us this year."
Hardy set a national high school record in the 100-yard breaststroke with a time of 1 minute 0.41 seconds, breaking the mark of 1:00.74 set by Kristen Woodring of West Lawn (Penn.) Wilson High in 2000, en route to winning the Southern Section Division I championship in the event last month at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach.
Hardy also won the 200-yard individual medley title with a time of 2:01.98 and helped the Bruins' 200 medley-relay team to victory in 1:46.52 during the same meet.
Such efforts prompted Hardy's selection as The Times' girls' swimmer of the year.
"I honestly didn't have that high of expectations for this season, but I'm very pleased with my swims," Hardy said. "It was a blast. I'm so glad I ended up not skipping the high school season."
Before the season began, Hardy had to decide whether she was able to compete for the Bruins while training for the U.S. Olympic trials July 7-14 in Long Beach.
She qualified for the Olympic trials in the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1:08.67 during preliminaries at the Speedo Grand Challenge on April 30-May 2 at USC. Her time ranks fifth-best among U.S. breaststrokers this year.
Hardy's recent performances have come on the heels of a difficult year of change and transition. Seeking more competition and a higher level of training, she switched clubs -- moving from the Seal Beach Swim Club to the Irvine Novaquatics -- in April 2003.
The Seal Beach club had about 100 swimmers, none of whom could keep pace with Hardy's development. The Novaquatics is three to four times that size and includes several top collegiate and international swimmers.
"At first, I was intimidated. It took me a while to get comfortable," she said. "I was a little afraid to switch teams because Novaquatics is so big, but I think it's made all the difference. I don't think I could have done any of this without switching teams."
After Hardy changed clubs, however, she was sidelined and did not swim the breaststroke last summer because of a slightly torn ligament in her right knee.
The injury timeout gave her time to train at a slower pace and concentrate on technical instructions from her club coach, Dave Salo.
Salo, a member of the U.S. Olympic coaching staff, has worked with Hardy to fine-tune her form, getting her to stay closer to the surface during dips underwater and teaching her to bring her heels up higher and kick faster to shorten her frog-like motion while maximizing the length of each stroke.
Salo also preached patience, because Hardy was always a good competitor when it came to racing but tended to lose efficiency in efforts to increase her speed against other swimmers.
"I just feel different in the water, like I have a better grasp of it now," Hardy said. "I do everything differently. My training, my intensity, my technique, it's all different now."
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THE TIMES' ALL-STAR GIRLS' SWIM TEAM
*--* 200 Medley Relay Long Beach Wilson (Lauren Silver, Jr.; Jessica Hardy, Jr.; Elise Etem, Fr.; Michelle Caswell, Jr.). Won Southern Section Division I title with a time of 1:46.52. 200 Freestyle Courtney Eads, Glendora Sr. Won the Division I title in a school-record time of 1:47.55. 200 Ind. Medley Lyndsay DePaul, Villa Park So. Posted school-record time of 2:03.11 while finishing second in Division I finals. 50 Freestyle Courtney Cashion, Irvine Sr. Set meet record in winning the Division I race in 22.75, missing national standard by less than half a second. 1-Meter Diving Tory Ishimatsu, Los Alamitos Fr. Won Division I championship with 500.10 points. 100 Butterfly Tara Thomas, Foothill Fr. Won Division I race with an area-best time of 54.57. 100 Freestyle Courtney Cashion, Irvine Sr. Broke her 2002 meet record by nearly two-tenths of a second while winning Division I final in 49.26. 500 Freestyle Courtney Eads, Glendora Sr. Set school record with a winning time of 4:49.21 in the Division I final. 200 Free Relay Irvine (June Becktell, Sr., Jane Hwang, Jr., Tanya Nielsen, Sr., Courtney Cashion, Sr.) Won Division I final in a meet-record time of 1:35.77, beating previous mark by nearly a second. 100 Backstroke Jessica Cruzat, Villa Park Sr. Won Division I final in 56.41 after a third-place finish last year. 100 Breaststroke Jessica Hardy, L.B. Wilson Jr. Olympic hopeful set a national record while winning the Division I race in 1:00.41. 400 Free Relay Irvine (Brooke Cashion, So., June Becktell, Sr., Tanya Nielsen, Sr., Courtney Cashion, Sr.) Vaqueros closed out its ninth consecutive team title by winning final race in 3:29.93. *--*